Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Matisse Called It His Masterpiece...

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When someone tells me about a place in Provence that they adore, I sometimes ask if they'd write a guest post about it so we all can enjoy. This time, not only was that person a career journalist but a journalist of the very highest order! I've been reading Jesse Kornbluth for years: in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and elsewhere. I was fascinated when he told me he had just written a play about the Matisse Chapel in Vence on the French Riviera...and delighted when he said he'd love to share his Matisse story with us here. Jesse's full bio and details about the play (which opens April 4 in Westchester County, New York) appear at the end of this post.

The chapel that Henri Matisse designed in Vence is a must-see for pretty much everyone visiting the South of France. It’s a painless expedition from Nice: a pleasant half-hour drive along the coast and into the hills, and there you are. The Chapelle du Rosaire is a small building. You can experience it quickly in the cool of the morning and move on to a lovely lunch at Le Michel Ange.

Roughly 200,000 people a year visit the Chapelle du Rosaire. I suspect most of them leave if not moved then at least appropriately impressed — every tour guide tells visitors that Matisse, one of the most celebrated artists of the last century, described the chapel as the “masterpiece” of his career. The story behind its creation? It’s no secret, but it seems to be known only by hard-core art lovers and scholars. It certainly wasn’t known to me when I waltzed through the chapel decades ago.

A few years ago, a random Internet search led me to the back-story, and, fascinated, I narrowed my search to learn how and where it had been dramatized. It hadn’t been. So although I’d never written a play, I applied the skills of my long career in journalism: I read every biography of Matisse and every art book about the chapel. And then I wrote “The Color of Light.” As a drama, the story of the chapel deals with a single question: How did Matisse, a lifelong atheist, come to design a place of worship for Catholics?

The answer: a woman. Of course. But not in the way you may be thinking.

In 1942, Matisse was 72, divorced, living in Nice and recovering from an operation for cancer. His only companion was his chilly Russian assistant. Needing a night nurse, he hired Monique Bourgeois, a 21-year-old nursing student. In the 15 nights they were together, Matisse came to love her like a daughter. But when he learned that she was going to become a nun, he was enraged. They parted on bad terms.

Five years later, Matisse was living in Vence. So was Monique, who was Matisse’s friend again — even if she was now Sister Jacques-Marie. Her convent prayed in a chapel that was once a garage. When it rained, the roof leaked. She asked Matisse to design a stained glass window so the nuns could raise money and repair the garage. He had another idea: a new chapel. Which he’d both design and pay for. Over opposition, Matisse spent years focused on the project. Jacques-Marie, who had unwittingly been photographed with Matisse for Vogue, wasn’t allowed to attend the dedication.

It’s easy to be underwhelmed by the chapel. It’s as close to empty as possible. No organ. No seats for a choir. Nothing to look at but colored windows, a few figures and some black designs and abstractions on the glazed white ceramic tiled walls. But to see it as a building that contains Matisse’s art and some colored windows is to miss his intent. For him, the building itself was art, an environment designed to lift your spirits and bring you closer to wherever you find the divine.

The main feature of the chapel is light. There are many windows, some clear, some blue, green and yellow. But not just any blue, green and yellow. The blue is a shade Matisse said he’d only seen twice, once on the wing of a butterfly, once in the flame of burning sulphur. The green is bottle green.  And it’s lemon yellow. When the light streams through, the colors merge on the white tiled floor and come alive. Children sometimes cup their hands and try to gather a present for their parents. They get it.

Most of the figures on the wall are non-threatening. That can’t be said of the Stations of the Cross. Matisse depicted the 14 fatal steps of Christ’s last day on a single wall in a jumble of graffiti-like figures that suggest broken limbs and profound grief. The church was horrified. It seemed the chapel wouldn’t be built. But Matisse was an astute politician: You don’t see The Stations of the Cross as you enter.

In our world, old age means a winding down, assisted living, and death in an antiseptic hospital room. But the Chapelle du Rosaire celebrates the exact opposite. It’s a late-life success story, with a creative flowering, a great love, and a good death at home. That story, told as a play, might deliver a transcendent theatrical experience. I dare to hope I’ve done that.


Jesse's Bio: Over the years, Jesse Kornbluth has been a contributor or contributing editor at Vanity Fair, New York, The New Yorker, The New York Times and many others. In 1996, he co-founded Bookreporter.com, now the hub of the internet’s most successful non-commercial book network. From 1997 to 2002, he was editorial director of America Online. In 2004, he launched HeadButler.com a cultural concierge site. Having once been married to a woman whose family owned a home in Provence, Jesse fondly recalls, among other things, the roast chicken at the Regalido in Fontvieille, the grilled steak at the Vallon de Gayet in Mouries (thanks to a recommendation from his mother-in-law’s hairdresser) and the incense at the Christmas Eve service at the church in Saint-Remy. Jesse's play, "The Color of Light," will be staged from April 4 to 28 by the Schoolhouse Theater in North Salem, NY, a pleasant drive or train from Manhattan. For info and tickets, click here. To reach Jesse directly: jessekay@aol.com.

Photos: (1, 3, 4, 5, 6) The Color of Light. Matisse designed three sets of stained glass windows for the chapel. All three make use of just three colors: an intense yellow for the sun, an intense green for vegetation and cactus forms, and a vivid blue for the Mediterranean Sea, the Riviera sky and the Madonna. The color from the windows floods the chapel's interior, which is otherwise all white. (2) Henri Matisse and Sister Jacques-Marie.  (7)  Matisse's Stations of the Cross, an ensemble of 14 scenes leading to the crucifixion, is one of three murals in the chapel. (8) Matisse started work on the chapel in 1947, at age 77; the project took four years to complete. (9, 10) Matisse also designed liturgical vestments for the clergy at the chapel, using the traditional ecclesiastical colors of the religious seasons: purple, black, pink/rose, green and red. For more about the Matisse "chasubles," click here

For a lovely video tour of the chapel from the BBC, click here

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